Faculty Guidance on Contact Tracing and Classroom Notification
We understand that some of you have questions regarding the Columbia Contact Tracing Process and how we assess the potential for COVID-19 transmission in the classroom. The following provides detailed information regarding this process, and how to respond to students who disclose a positive COVID-19 test, who indicate the need to isolate or quarantine, or who tell you that they are experiencing symptoms that may suggest COVID.
Columbia’s Contact Tracing Process
The Columbia Contact Tracing Team’s response to positive COVID-19 cases includes evaluating risks to close contacts, providing guidance to positive cases and their close contacts, notifying faculty and students who are in the class of a COVID-positive individual, and ordering facilities cleanings, as needed. Additionally, the team provides data that helps inform discussions by the Public Health Group as additional health and safety protocols are considered, in accordance with our campus monitoring plan.
Here’s How It Works:
1. Notification and Isolation
If a student, faculty, or staff member tests positive through Columbia’s testing program, both the individual (index case) and the Contact Tracing Team receive immediate notification.
Regardless of vaccination status, the COVID-19 case will be told to stay home and isolate. Individuals who test positive cannot participate in any University-sponsored activities on or off campus until their isolation period is complete as per the Contact Tracing guidance. The Contact Tracing Team will call them within 24 hours of the positive test to review the rules and requirements of isolation. In the case of residential students, additional protocols regarding relocation and meals may be arranged.
Those who receive a positive test result from outside the University should report this immediately to [email protected] so that contact tracing, as described above, can be performed, and if a faculty member is notified by a student that they have tested positive outside of the University, the faculty member should tell the student to report it immediately to [email protected].
2. Intake and Contact Tracing
The contact tracers will ask the individual who tested positive about their interactions with other Columbia affiliates during the time they may have been infectious, based on specific definitions, both on and off campus, including participation in classes, events, and other University-sponsored activities, as well as social activities. The Contact Tracing Team then notifies those Columbia affiliates who fulfill the definition of close contact—without revealing the name of the positive case or details of the exposure.
These individuals are called “close contacts,” and the Contact Tracing Team will instruct them to follow health and safety protocols, based on their vaccination status and whether they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. All close contacts who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine and are permitted to continue to participate with all in-person activities, such as class and work. A small number who have an approved vaccination exemption or develop symptoms are instructed to quarantine.
It is important to reinforce that, given our high vaccination rates and other safety measures, most people who receive a notification of a classroom case are not by necessity close contacts nor at increased risk for COVID-19 infection and, therefore, do not need to follow additional safety protocols. This is true even if these individuals in the same class have been in the same space as a COVID-positive student or faculty/staff member during the period when they were infectious. For example, being in a class with a COVID-positive person does not automatically make everyone else in the class a close contact and does not require that the class in turn move to remote instruction, nor does it mean that students in the classroom can decide that they want to refrain from attending in-person instruction. We are sharing classroom notifications in an effort to ensure transparency, but these are NOT notifications of being a close contact.
3. Returning to Regular Activities
Based on CDC guidelines and clinical findings, the Contact Tracing Team advises affiliates who were instructed to isolate or quarantine when they may return to in-person work, class, housing, and other activities.
More information about the Contact Tracing Program, including information on how privacy is protected, is available via the FAQ’s on Contact Tracing at our COVID-19 Resource Guide website.
The Columbia University Public Health Working Group and the Contact Tracing Team closely monitor data for trends and clusters within the Columbia affiliate community and the broader New York City community. For example, if multiple cases within an academic program are detected, an investigation is conducted to assess the possible chain of transmission. Multiple cases within a single class can occur on occasion; however, investigations may show that the most likely venue where transmission occurred was in settings outside the classroom where the students were gathering, often unmasked (e.g., living, studying, and socializing together). This is not an unusual scenario: students who are in the same academic program and classes are more likely to become friends and participate together in non-academic activities where transmission risk is higher.
Notifications to Faculty
- Faculty are individually notified if their interactions with the positive case meet specific public health criteria for being a close contact case of COVID-19. Current criteria include being within six feet for over 10 minutes.
- Classroom notifications are sent (usually through Canvas if Mailtool is enabled) when a positive individual was in a classroom during their infectious period, even if there were no close contacts or when close contacts are also individually notified.
- It is important to reinforce that, given our high vaccination rates, current required masking, and other safety measures, faculty should continue to hold class even if a positive case is identified in their class. Faculty and students who receive a classroom notification and are NOT identified as close contacts are not at increased risk for COVID-19 infection and therefore, should continue to attend class. In addition, even for those who are identified as close contacts who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, they also should continue to attend in-person instruction or work, while observing the masking requirement.
- If a significant concern is identified in a class, appropriate faculty and administrators will receive additional communications from contact tracing leadership, including an action plan. If public health considerations indicate that a class should stop meeting in person, contact tracing leadership will reach out to appropriate faculty and administrators to discuss next steps.
What Should a Faculty Member Do if a Student Informs Them That They Tested Positive or Have Symptoms?
If a student reports any illness, they should not feel pressured to come to class when they feel sick because they have concerns about potential negative impacts on their grades. Such behavior goes against a key mitigation measure for our community: persuading those who are sick to stay home. Similarly, for students who inform an instructor of a positive test, they should be provided the support indicated below.
- Encourage students who are sick to stay home. Symptoms of COVID-19 can be similar to those of other infections. Staying home when ill prevents the spread of infections and reduces the likelihood of additional absences or class disruption.
- Instruct students to reach out to their campus student health service, if they experience symptoms, to receive guidance on testing and self-care.
- Provide appropriate academic support to students who temporarily cannot participate in in-person classes due to illness or isolation/quarantine (or employ your program’s customary practice for students who miss class due to illness), bearing in mind that the absence may be more extended than is usually the case when a student is ill. More information on attendance polices and missed classes, including how faculty can support students in isolation or quarantine, is available in the FAQ’s on our COVID-19 Resource website.
- Reassure students that absences due to any type of illness will not have a negative academic impact.
Faculty should not:
- Ask for details about the student’s COVID-19 status or illness (or any health information such as vaccination status, test results, diagnosis, or symptoms).
- Ask if an absence is COVID-19 related or ask for documentation of a health care visit or “sick note” to excuse the absence.
- Cancel class or transition a class to remote instruction.
- Email a class or make announcements about a case or make health recommendations related to testing, quarantine, isolation, or cleaning.
Our COVID Resource FAQ's on In-Person Instruction provide further information about instructional protocols.
What Is the Risk of COVID-19 Transmission in Traditional Classrooms?
The risk of COVID-19 transmission is low in settings with high rates of vaccination and other public health protective measures. Columbia has a vaccination rate over 99% among its affiliates, and masks are required in all indoor settings, such as classrooms. The overall number of positive cases across our campuses continues to decline, down to 23 positive cases total (for a 0.33% positivity rate) during the week of September 27. Data from our contact tracing efforts reinforce the point that our classrooms are not a primary source of transmission; community transmission occurs in settings with prolonged close contacts where people gather and are not universally masked.
We have full confidence in the Columbia Testing and Contact Tracing Program and the additional safety measures we have in place. We also recognize that with the transition to full in-person instruction and work—notwithstanding our high rates of vaccination, current mask requirement, and other safety protocols—some faculty may continue to feel uneasy. We are grateful for the dedication you have shown to our students and their academic progress, and will continue to work with you moving forward.
Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, CUIMC
University COVID Director
Senior Vice President, Columbia Health
Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine (in the Center for Family and Community Medicine)